Ranchers in crisis over 
tule elk

David Briggs
Ranchers in Point Reyes National Seashore say growing herds of tule elk, some of which now graze alongside cattle, are posing an immediate threat to their financial viability. Seashore officials say they need to develop a new management plan before taking action.   

Ranchers and officials in Point Reyes National Seashore are at loggerheads over the growing presence of free-ranging tule elk, which ranchers say are costing them tens of thousands of dollars in damages annually and threatening their very survival. The National Park Service says it doesn’t have a valid management plan to address the encroachment of elk into the pastoral zone, and that it is gathering data and applying for funding to write a new plan. 

But a letter sent last month by the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association to Superintendent Cicely Muldoon was urgent: “Despite the Seashore’s promises of commitment continually made to the [seashore] ranching community that their sustainability is ensured, the current problems created by the elk guarantee an end to agriculture in the park.”

The ranchers call for the immediate relocation of elk to the seashore’s 18,000 acres of wilderness, and charge park staff with having abdicated their responsibility in addressing the longstanding issue, which now affects eight ranches, half of them on a continual basis.

They say elk are eating cattle forage, forcing them to pay for additional food—usually hay or alfalfa—and threatening their organic certification, which places limits on supplemental feed. And when the elk damage fences, cattle wander away. “The ranch currently experiencing the most severe damage by elk is considering whether or not their business can remain financially viable,” their letter states. 

“The farmers can’t support the elk out here. We just don’t have the resources,” said one rancher who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

But seashore officials say their hands are tied, since their existing elk management plan never evaluated the presence of elk in the pastoral zone and only provided for removing them from private property. Because the tule elk are a public resource and the ranches are on federal land, the nation has a right to provide input on how they should be managed there, they say. The park applied for funding to write a new plan for the last two years but did not obtain it, and it will apply again this fiscal year. 

Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said ranchers pay less for their leases than they would for private land to account for stringent rules and the complications of doing business in a national park. 

Once decimated in California in the 1800’s, tule elk have made a comeback in the seashore, which has one of the largest populations in the state. When they were introduced in 1978, they were limited to a 2,600-acre fenced enclosure at Tomales Point. After a few lackluster years, the herd began to grow swiftly. 

In 2012 there were 540 elk in the preserve. In 1998, seashore officials, as part of a management plan that was approved that year, moved 45 animals to the wilderness area that extends from Estero de Limantour to Bolinas in order to establish a free-ranging herd. Most of those elk, which totaled 94 in 2012, roam just west of the Limantour Beach parking area, near the Muddy Hollow and Glenbrook Creek drainages. They have not traveled further south than Coast Camp. 

Roughly 25 to 30 of the elk further north move between wilderness and the Home Ranch and Estero Road areas. A separate herd of 74 lives at Drakes Beach—outside the wilderness area—and roams on nearby ranches.

The seashore has helped fix fences since the early 2000’s, when elk began appearing on ranches, and it is now pursuing an experimental fence near Home Ranch. It has also installed so-called “elk crossings,” where sections of lowered fences allow elk to jump and clear them instead of damaging them.

The park has experimented with other mitigation measures with varying levels of success. Starting late last summer, they filled two ponds at the defunct D Ranch in an attempt to lure them away from C Ranch, one of the more heavily impacted ranches. The elk discovered the ponds, and after returning to work since the government shutdown, Dave Press, the seashore’s chief wildlife ecologist, said GPS data showed they spent more time around them in October than in previous months. 

They also tried hazing the elk in 2012, wherein a park employee would approach the animals twice a day in an attempt to scare them off ranch lands. “Unfortunately—I’ll be straight with you—it wasn’t that successful,” Mr. Press said. Although they would leave when spooked, they would return soon afterwards.

Ms. Gunn said that during the development of the 1998 management plan, no one expressed concerns about elk trespassing on ranches, and many likely assumed topography—namely, the Inverness Ridge—would discourage them from straying from their intended home.

But the ranchers argue that the plan was designed to be adaptive. “The elk management plan, like a lot of habitat and species management plans, is supposed to be crafted to support adaptive management plans. They are living documents. The plan allows for solution to a problem. The park has ability to alleviate this problem without negative effects on elk. That is the frustrating point,” said Margo Parks, director of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association.

Mr. Press disagrees with that interpretation of adaptive. “[The plan] just doesn’t lend itself to that. There’s not enough [data] to go on,” he said. He believes ranchers fundamentally misunderstand the plan, which he says expected—but did not require—that elk would remain in the wilderness area.

The plan states that elk would be permitted outside that area “as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.” If elk move onto private property and cause damage, “The seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals… or establish partnerships with state and county agencies” to help with recapture, it states.

But the ranchers’ letter cites a 2001 annual park report that said elk were being monitored so that they did not interfere with ranches. It is evidence, they say, that separating the two four-legged grazers was a key part of the plan. 

The plan also presented, and rejected, an alternative that would have eliminated or reduced the number of ranching permits so that elk could range freely throughout the seashore. It did limit the herd at Limantour to between 250 and 350 animals—a limit Mr. Press said a new plan would “take a fresh look at.” If the population were to exceed a desired threshold, he said the park could do nothing or, if necessary, attempt to control the population through burns, manipulation of water resources, relocation or lethal removal. 

Mr. Press believes some level of co-existence between elk and cattle is possible, though he would not suggest how much. “That’s exactly why we need to embark on a new planning process,” he said.

For their part, the ranchers argue that financial impacts—including at least $30,000 in damage annually for one rancher, according to the letter—necessitate immediate removal. 

According to Ms. Parks, some ranchers are tired of ad hoc attempts to manage the elk, and time is running out. “This is on the brink of ruining people’s livelihoods,” she said. “The luxury of time is not here.”